Curating the water cooler moment

Pre-pandemic, we might’ve rolled our eyes at the notorious ‘water cooler conversation’ that formed part of everyday life in the office. Small talk and office gossip – while making a cup of tea in the kitchen, bumping into someone in the lift, or walking from one meeting to another – were part of the fabric of the working world. But, when the pandemic hit and plunged us into the world of remote working, they were one of the things people started to miss most.

Jeanine Goddard, Creative Director at office furniture manufacturer, Bisley, discusses how the post-pandemic office can be set up to harness those surprisingly important water cooler moments.

Natural, informal interaction with colleagues – talking about things other than work, with people you might not usually work alongside – perhaps previously taken for granted, were highlighted as not just socially beneficial, but as fundamental to business success, too.   

Without the spontaneous sparking of ideas, sharing of experiences, and gaining of new perspectives that water cooler conversation offers, creativity, collaboration, and relationship-building is much harder work.

So how, with the careful return to the office and all the new design considerations the pandemic has given us to contemplate, can we make sure our spaces are set up to ‘catch’ those water-cooler moments, facilitating impromptu conversations, rather than squashing them?

The first thing is to recognise that people don’t have their best ideas at their desk – and to scrap the idea that if people aren’t sitting in front of their computer, they’re not working.

While water-cooler conversations might not always sound like work, it’s important to remember that catching up, sharing ideas, and bouncing off one another is something to encourage, rather than frown upon. That might be a cultural shift, but it’s key to encouraging open discussion.

The next thing to consider is the spaces these types of impromptu conversations are likely to take place in – and make sure they’re designed to facilitate them.

Dotting high tables throughout your space – in the canteen, outside lifts, or even by the bathrooms – so that people have somewhere to rest their laptop or coffee mug while chatting is a nice way to keep people talking.

Similarly, installing long low benches in corridors, or outside meeting rooms, gives people somewhere to chat pre and post-meeting – while waiting for the next one to start or finish.

A space for post-meeting conversation can work well for introverts, who might’ve been thinking, but not contributing, in a more formal forum, and are now ready to share their ideas. A sofa, a couple of armchairs in a nearby nook, or even simply a storage unit at standing height with a worktop on it to perch a laptop, can encourage people to get into talking and sharing mode spontaneously – and stay there.

There are things you can do to encourage impromptu conversation at desks too. Having storage caddies with comfy seat pads on top, that you can easily wheel away or have someone pull up to your desk, keeps people comfortable when collaboration is unplanned. Or, if it’s likely that people will drop by for a five-minute chat, having a three-binder high room divider that they can lean on just next to your workstation creates a touchdown point, ideal for a quick word.

Finally, make sure that you’ve got the right zones or spaces for people to carry their impromptu water cooler chats on if they want to. This might be going and grabbing a coffee together in a dedicated, informal space for relaxation, or jumping into a meeting room with a flip chart to start scribbling thoughts and ideas. Either way, thinking about zoning your space means you’ll be setting your colleagues up to make the most of spontaneous conversations that can lead to big ideas.

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